Developed in the twentieth century, Structuralism is a human science that tries to unearth the basic structures that underlie all human experience and behaviour. It is a method of systematizing human experience, which is applied in various fields of study such as anthropology, linguistics, psychology, literature etc. Structural linguistics was developed by Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure in his work Course in General Linguistics (1915). Language is seen as a structure, a system of signs. A word is a linguistic sign that has two inseparable parts, the signifier and the signified. A sign comes into being only when it acquires meaning. The signifier is the sound image and the signified is the concept to which the signifier refers.  Semiotics, the science of signs, has become the subject of a structured enquiry . Semiology which applies structuralist insights to the study of sign systems.

According to Saussure, the relationship  between the signifier and signified is arbitrary. There is nothing in either the thing or the word that makes the two go together – no logical relation between a particular sound image and a concept. For eg, the word for ‘tree’ assumes  different forms  in different languages. If there was something inherent in the tree that generated the word that represented it, the word  for ‘tree’ would be more or less the same in all languages. This principle of arbitrariness dominates all ideas about the structure of language. There may be some kinds of signs which seem less arbitrary – pantomime, sign language and gestures. But Saussure insists that all signs are arbitrary. Eg. The thumbs up gesture to indicate success has meaning only because a community has agreed on what that signifies, not because it has some universal or intrinsic meaning. Saussure emphasized that meanings are maintained by convention of social customs only. Words are ‘unmotivated signs’ ie, there is no inherent connection between a word and what it designates. The word ‘hut’ for example is not in any way appropriate to its meaning. He also dismisses onomatopoeic words as agreed upon conventional signs. Interjections also differ from culture to culture. Eg: When one stubs the toe, the English say ‘ouch’, the French say ‘aie’ and the South Indian ‘ayyo’.

As a structuralist, Saussure is not interested in how communities agree on establishing the relationship between signifiers and signified. Structuralists look at a whole structure or system at the present moment – always synchronic. Modes of analysis that try to account for changes over a period of time are called diachronic.

According to Saussure, thought is a kind of shapeless mass, which is only ordered by the structure of language. According to him, no ideas pre-exist language; language gives shape to ideas and makes them expressible, and thought cannot exist without language. Language creates the world. It is language that structures human experiences. In this sense, human beings don’t speak language, language speaks us. Language is not a thing, a substance, but a form, a container, a system, a structure. For Saussure, language constitutes the world, not just records or reflects it. Meaning is always attributed to the object or idea by the human mind, and constructed by and expressed through language: it is not already contained within it.

Saussure focusses attention on the system of language as a whole, rather than on the individual parts of the system. Using the French word for language, he calls the system as a whole ‘langue’ and  any individual part of language, such as a word, as ‘parole’. Structuralist linguistics is more interested in langue than in parole. Each community sets up relations between any particular sound image and any particular concept to form specific paroles. An individual can say what a signifier/signified combination means or use it to communicate with others only if the other person agrees on what signifiers go with what signifieds. Structuralists make use of the langue/parole distinction by seeing an individual literary word (any particular novel) as an example of a literary parole. It too only makes sense in the context of some wider containing structure. So the langue which relates to a particular novel is the notion of the novel as a genre, as a body of literary practice.

Saussure bypasses the term ‘meaning’ when he speaks of a signifier/signified combination. The connection established between any particular signifier and its signified, he calls ‘signification’. Signification exists on the level of the individual parole. Meaning is also produced within a structure as a whole, at the level of langue; Saussure calls this value , which is the relation between signs within an entire signifying system. Value comes from the fact that one particular term or unit is surrounded by all the other terms or units of a system. Value cannot be determined in isolation.

Saussure emphasized that the meanings of words are relational . No word can be defined in isolation from  other words. The most important relation between signifiers in a system, the relation that creates value is the idea of  difference. According to Saussure, one signifier in a system has value because it is not any of the other signifiers in the system. This is a crucially important concept in structuralism. (Eg: ‘Red’ is red because it is different from blue or green or yellow). The human mind perceives most readily, differences that are distinctions within a system of opposites and contrasts; these are called binary oppositions. ‘Signification’ is a ‘positive relationship’ where meaning occurs because one signifier is connected/linked to one specific signified in a binary pair. Connecting the sound with a symbol is ‘signification.’ Value, by contrast, is a negative relation: we know what one signifier is because it is not any other signifier in the system. The word ‘cat’ has value because it is not the word ‘hat’ or ‘bat’.

In his Course in General Linguistics, Saussure explains further how the structure of signifying systems operates. Everything in the system is based on the relations that can occur between the units of a system, whether positive or negative, relations of signification or of value. There are two ways or patterns in which units form relationships with a system: ‘syntagmatic’ and ‘associative’ relationships. Syntagmatic relations are basically linear relations. In spoken or written language, words come out one by one in a linear form, which in turn form a kind of chain, in which one unit is linked to the next because they are in an order in a line. Eg: in English, word order governs meaning. Combinations or relations formed by position within a linear chain (like where a word is in a sentence) are called syntagms. The terms within a syntagm acquire value only because they stand in opposition to everything before or after them. Each term is something because it is not something else in the sequence. If we have paired opposites, meaning becomes more apparent. The term ‘male’ and ‘female’ have meaning in relation to each other. ‘Male’ means ‘not female’ and vice versa; we can have no concept of ‘day’ without ‘night’ – no notion of ‘good’ without ‘bad’. This relational aspect of language gave rise to a famous remark of Saussure’s : “In a Language there are only differences, without fixed terms.”

The signifier (sound image, spoken word) exists in time and that time can be measured as linear. One  cannot utter two words at the same time and be intelligible. One word comes first and then the next, in a linear fashion. The same applies to writing as well. All languages operate as a linear sequence. The most obvious example is the sentence: words come one at a time and in a line but the meaning is generated by our understanding that the words are all connected together.

Claude Levi-Strauss: In the late 1950s, the French cultural anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss   used structuralist principles  to organize some aspects of human life, in spite of the differences in the cultures of human beings. A signifying system can be a part of a culture that contains signs which can be ‘read’ and interpreted by determining signification (how signifiers are connected to signified) and by determining value (how one sign is different from all other signs in a system). This idea is at the heart of any structuralist  analysis. Saussure applies it to language, Levi-Strauss, an anthropologist, applies it to kinship systems and other forms of cultural organization including myth.

For Levi-Strauss, structuralist analysis offers a chance to discover the ‘timeless universal human truths’,  but using a methodology that seems much more objective and scientific. One of the most basic structures  shared by all human societies is kinship: every society that has ever existed anywhere has had some sort of system for deciding who can marry whom, who inherits what from whom etc. In The Elementary Structures of Kinship ( 1969), Levi Strauss points out two important functions of kinship system.

  1. The first is that kinship systems structure how goods, ideas and people are ‘exchanged’ within a culture, giving form to that culture’s economic, educational, religious and social relations.
  2. More important, Levi Strauss insists that the relations among units within the kinship system or any structure occur in ‘binary pairs’ which are either similar to each other or different from each other. A is A because it is not B; A is A because it is not Q etc. What is important to Levi- Strauss is not the identity of any individual unit, any ‘parole’ but the ‘relation’ between any two units compared in a binary pair. He suggested that the individual tale (the parole) from a cycle of myths did not have a separate or inherent meaning but could only be understood by considering its position in the whole cycle (the langue) and the similarities and differences between that tale and others in the sequence.

In The Raw and the Cooked(1969), Levi-Strauss discusses how binary pairs, particularly ‘binary opposites,’ form the basic structure of all human cultures, all human ways of thought, and all human signifying systems. Even more importantly, in each binary pair, one term is favoured over the other: cooked is better than raw, good is better than evil, light is better than dark, etc.

In his essay “The Structural Study of Myth”, Levi-Strauss looks at the similarity of myths from cultures all over the world. He notices that cultures widely separated by geography or time still have distinctly similar myths. He finds an answer to this by looking not at the content of each myth, but at their structure. While the specific characters and actions differ greatly, Levi-Strauss argues that their structures are almost identical. Levi-Strauss insists that myth is a language, because it has to be told in order to exist. Myth, as language, consists of both languae and parole, both the synchronic, ahistorical structure and the specific diachronic details within that structure. Parole is a specific unit or instance or event, can only exist in linear time. Langue, on the other hand, is the structure itself, which doesn’t ever change, can exist in the past, present or future. A myth can be altered, expanded, reduced, and paraphrased without losing its basic shape or structure: (princess, prince, stepmother etc. ). No matter what details are added to the story, the structure of relations among the units remain the same.

Levi-Strauss argues that, while myth as structure looks like language as structure, it is actually different- it operates on a higher and more complex level. Myth differs from language because the basic units of myth are not phonemes but what Levi-Strauss calls ‘mythemes’. A mytheme is the ‘atom’ of a myth – the smallest irreducible unit that conveys meaning. A structuralist would lay the mythemes out so that they can be read both horizontally and vertically, diachronically and synchronically, for plot and for theme. The story of the myth exists on a vertical left-to-right axis; the themes of the myth exist on the horizontal up-and-down axis. The relations formed by any two of the mythemes in this array constitute the basic structure of the myth. According to Levi-Strauss, the significance of the myth is that it presents certain structural relations, in the form of binary oppositions that are universal concerns in all cultures.

Roland Barthes: Liberal humanism has always held the view that a literary work is the outcome of the author’s imagination- expressing the author’s self, his thoughts, his feelings. The structuralists, on the other hand, persuade us that the author is ‘dead’. Roland Barthes in his essay ‘The Death of the Author’ makes a statement that ‘the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author’. He remarks further that writing is that neutral, oblique, composite space where our subject slips away; the negative where all identity is lost. Barthes also interprets social practices involving food and clothes as sign system which function on the same model as language. Garments in general are the system (Saussure’s ‘langue’ and Chomsky’s ‘competence’); a particular set of garments, is the equivalent of a ‘sentence’ (Saussure’s ‘parole’ and Chomsky’s ‘performance’. The same distinction applies to food. Foodstuffs in general constitute the system; a particular menu and meal constitute the ‘sentence’. (After 1968, Barthes was associated with post-structuralism.

Noam Chomsky: Chomsky made another contribution to structuralist theory. He made a distinction between ‘surface structures’ and ‘deep structures’. A surface structure consists of the collection of words and sounds that we articulate and hear in a sentence, the deep structure is the underlying sentence in language. A single sentence may have many different surface forms and features and yet have the same meaning. The underlying or deep structure regulates the meaning.

Jonathan Culler:A theory of structuralist poetics has been developed by Jonathan Culler in his book Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics and the Study of Literature. he advances the idea that the real object of poetics is not the work itself but its intelligibility. Culler focuses on the reader rather than on the text. The structure resides in the system that underlies the reader’s interpretation or ‘literary competence’ rather than in the text.

Roman Jakobson: His two essays “Linguistics and Poetics” and “Two Aspects of Language” provide other forms of structuralist theories. He developed a theory based on the concept of binary opposition in the structure of language. He was particularly concerned with the metaphor/metonymy opposition and its implication in the analysis of realism and symbolism.   

Thus, structuralism is not a new way of interpreting works, but an attempt to understand how texts come to have meaning for us. It finds out the langue of literary texts, ie the grammar, because of the basic rules that govern literary texts. Literature is viewed upon like any other form of social or cultural activity. Structuralism replaces the atomization and individualism of New Criticism by its trust in and reliance on universalism. In short, structuralism makes radical departures from the traditional criticism and the traditional ways of perceiving the word, the world and the text.


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